“What right have you to be merry?”: Silliness and Seriousness in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

My grandfather was Fezziwig. Standing on the stage at the end of the packing shed, fully dressed in a Victorian-style waistcoat and brown top-hat, with a sprig of holly in its side (though not, thankfully, in his heart), he announced to the audience that tables would be cleared and the band assembled so dancing could finally begin. Every early December on the weekends when I was growing up, my extended family would put on a series of Christmas dances for our living history farm. I or my cousin would always play Tiny Tim. Part dinner-theater, part dancing-hall, the packing shed became Fezziwig’s factory, and our production of A Christmas Carol would pause in that middle act so the “city folks” could try their feet at the “Roger de Coverly” and (always the house favorite) “Virginia Reel.”

Having Fezziwig for a grandfather meant that I always found Fezziwig’s scene in A Christmas Carol to be thoroughly joyful, happy, and good. It is always depicted in film adaptations as a moment where Scrooge and his audience lament the misspent opportunities and good influence that Fezziwig might have had on his young apprentice. Yet, in the novel, just after Scrooge begins to soften while watching, he receives a rebuke from his guiding Spirit. “‘A small matter, said the Ghost, ‘to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’ Small!’ echoed Scrooge” (71). In that moment, Scrooge uncharacteristically defends merriment when he states that Fezziwig’s power of making his guests “so full of gratitude” is “impossible to add and count ‘em up … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” (72). The Spirit’s rebuke towards Scrooge could be an indictment of the latter’s miserly attitude, as is the case when the Ghost of Christmas Present uses Scrooge’s own words against him, asking “Are there no prisons? … Are there no poor houses?” (79). Ostensibly, the fact that Scrooge is more like his younger self when he responds would indicate that his remark is correct, or at least coming from a better part of his nature. I am inclined to agree with him, but does he adequately address whether or not Fezziwig and his guests are “silly,” or that Fezziwig’s kindness is “a small matter”? When suffering mars the world, is it right to express joy in such a silly way as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig do? Are they rightly the source of praise, if their benevolence is of a “small” nature? Should we not be more serious?

Scrooge’s development in the novel can be seen as a “reclamation,” to use the first Spirit’s term, of childlike mirth and silliness, but it is not clear that such a demeanor is always the end of “Christian” maturity in the book (63).[1] At the novel’s final chapter, Scrooge begins his new life with the declaration, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here! … ”  (119). Childishness, or a kind of childish merriment, are seemingly among the crucial qualities that Scrooge had lost, and which the Spirits endeavor to re-cultivate in his cold and inhospitable heart. In a kind of reverse bildungsroman, it is not a growing up that Scrooge must achieve, but a growing younger, and I don’t think any reader mourns whatever Scrooge loses in that process. Bob Cratchit demonstrates a similar childlike glee when he “went down a slide on Cornhill” no less than twenty times as a way to “honor” Christmas (47). Part of keeping the holiday seems to receive it gleefully.

Yet, while readers might initially assume that Dickens universally promotes a child-like silliness because of Scrooge, Bob, and Fezziwig, it is notable that the Spirits themselves, and even Tiny Tim, are frequently serious.[2] The first Spirit is “soft and gentle,” but not jovial. Its commands are resolute, and its grasp, though “gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted” (63). It beams with light, but not warmth. Of course, the second Spirit, if it is a spirit of anything, is of “good humor” (84). It outpours its “bright and harmless mirth on everything within its reach” (91-92). Yet, even the “Jolly Giant” becomes grave at the introduction of Want and Ignorance at the end of its chapter, speaking to Scrooge “sorrowfully,” and prophetically spreading its hands towards London while crying out “bide the end” (79). The spirit of mirth grows to be more serious, rather than less. If the spirits represent what is most “spiritual,” in a broadly Christian sense, then why does their serious demeanor contrast so with Scrooge’s “spiritual” growth towards glee?

Tiny Tim, moreover, serves as a foil to Fezziwig and Scrooge, and even his father. The old men have a childish demeanor, while the boy has a serious wisdom. Tiny Tim may be a child and “as good as gold,” but he is never silly (87). Bob follows the characterization of his son’s goodness by saying, “he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and he thinks the strangest things you ever heard” (87). That Tiny Tim would want others to see his own disability to be reminded on Christmas day of him “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see,” indicates he has a profound and serious nature (87). Furthermore, in the few pages the reader has of Tiny Tim, it is notable that Dickens tasks him with singing “about a lost child travelling in the snow” (91). Whether this boy finds his way in the song is not specified, but it is possible that Tim’s subject is of an entirely tragic nature. Either way, suffering is present, and the song is as poignant and unresolved as the “wretched woman with an infant,” at the end of Dickens’ first stave, whom the shades cannot help (59). Much in the novel, then, is serious, and it raises the question of whether such middle-class silliness as Fezziwig’s ought to be seen as great or worthwhile in light of the suffering poor. How can such flippancy as a dance be meaningful when the wretched widow and her infant are alone in the cold?

I am reminded, at the end of this inquiry, that my grandfather is actually quite a serious man. He plays at Fezziwig, but conducts his business of guiding dancers across the floor, and replicating Christmas jollity on the farm in the winter, with a kind of gravity. “I would like to think it is God’s work,” he has sometimes said to me. Perhaps he reflects the demeanor of the narrator, as Dickens expresses in a strange break in his story. Relating of Belle’s children, he declares “What would I not have given to be one of them! … I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value” (74-75). That the narrator longs for the licence of a child implies that he does not have it, even if he thinks it is a good quality. The end of the spiritual journey in the novel may not be towards complete child-likeness or complete seriousness. We know Ignorance and Want creep under the robes of the Present. We know that death is in our future. However, there might be a way to retain a licence in joy while knowing the value of things. Cultivating it for others may itself be valuable, “silly” and “small” though it may seem, even if we ourselves do not always feel it.


[1] I mean “Christian,” here, in a more cultural than theological sense. Scrooge comes to practice the virtues that Fred characterizes as belonging to the time of Christmas, regardless of anyone’s position on Christian orthodoxy: that is, kindness, forgiveness, charity, and pleasantness (42).

[2] Not much need be said of the final Spirit on this matter, who is introduced as “grave” and with the characteristic that, “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery” (102).


Works Cited


Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.

“Now don’t be hasty, Mary Barton”: Guilt, Conscience, and Moral Judgment in Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton finds no shortage of moral judgments from its characters, but it is not clear that they are made soundly. From the onset, the first dialogue that opens the book centers on a challenge to readily made ethical judgments, as Wilson reveals to his friend, “Folks said you’d cast [Esther] off,” and John “testily” replies, “Folks always make one a deal worse than one is” (39). Initially, the reader might dismiss John’s statement, as his “testy” tone suggests that he speaks from annoyance and a desire to defend himself, rather than a state of calm reflection or wisdom. Furthermore, John follows his initial caution against hasty judgments by making one against an entire class himself. The idea that the rich “know nothing of the trials of the poor” is an “old tale,” he says, for “if they don’t know, they ought to know,” and John therefore concludes that rich and poor are as separate as Dives and Lazarus (40). Perhaps John is correct about the rich in spite of his bitterness. The elder Carson’s response to Wilson’s entreaty at the behest of a dying family suggests that if the rich man knows not of his workers’ sufferings, he ought to. And yet, if John is correct about the extent of the wealthy class’ moral failures, then his own statement that people always judge others too critically is undermined. Moral judgments are made throughout Mary Barton, but whether aimed at others or the self, the book seems unclear as to how and when people can be good judges.

Much from the novel indicates that judgments are often made too harshly, but the book nevertheless provides some reasons for such judgments. Mrs. Wilson calls Mary a “good-for-nothing,” Mr. Carson believes that Mary is a “Helen,” and the people of Manchester, including Mary herself, immediately believe that Jem is guilty of Harry Carson’s murder (294, 402). The reader has some access to Mary’s inner life and behavior, and therefore can sympathize with her in light of such criticism. Furthermore, because the narrator lets her audience in on Jem’s innocence, the reader knows that the folks of Manchester have indeed judged their good neighbor too harshly. Initially, these examples would indicate that John’s assessment is correct; people are too easy to judge. Yet, it might also be the case one cannot fault these characters for their judgments, as they they lack the evidence that only an omniscient narrator could provide. Gaskell indicates that Mary, “doubted not [Jem’s] guilt; she felt how madly she might act if once jealous of him, and how much cause had she not given him for jealousy?” (295). It is only the paper with her signature that later convinces Mary of Jem’s innocence. Given that the narrator provides reasons for Mary’s initial judgment, and the limits of her own knowledge, can the reader blame her or others for not knowing more?

While judgments of others in the novel are potentially unsound, self-assessments seem to have more weight, though there are reasons to question even these. When John actually casts Esther off in the middle of the book, the narrator states that “his conscience smote him for his harshness,” and Jem, too, finds that, “his conscience smote him. He had not done enough to save [Esther]” (175, 219). Jem and John feel the burden of conscience regarding their own behavior, and perhaps rightly, because they were hasty to judge Esther and made too little an effort to redeem her. Interestingly, the narrator here unites the one who will later be guilty and the falsely condemned under the parallel burden of a smitten conscience. Mary is also a critical judge regarding her own character. When Mrs. Wilson rails against Mary, the narrator states, “Speak on, desolate mother. Abuse her as you will. Her broken spirit feels to have merited all” (295). Mary even excuses Jem’s supposed murder as her own fault, as she “[clings] more closely to [Jem’s] image with passionate self-upbraiding” (298). That the narrator describes Mrs. Wilson’s railings as an “abuse,” and Mary’s convictions as a “feeling,” could indicate that Mary is too hard on herself. What cannot be denied from the passage is the strength Mary’s criticisms. John, Jem, and Mary are sure of their own guilt, suggesting that individuals are better at judging themselves than each other.

If horizontal and inward judgments are complex and faulty, Mary Barton further indicates that there could be a more charitable and true appeal in the vertical. In the final dialogue between Job and Mr. Carson, the former states that he will not judge the masters according to his own understanding or moral standards, but theirs. “When the time comes for judging you;” he says, “I sha’nt think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own” (474). This could reflect Paul in Romans when he asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14.4-5). According Job’s metrics, there is reason to think that one’s assessment of one’s self is more reliable than the judgment of others. Yet, this would also imply that Mary is right to condemn herself because she is “fully convinced” in her own mind, and that Harry Carson, who feels no prick of conscience, is right to be “proud of himself” (107). Is acting right on own’s own view of things sufficient for being considered good? Not enough, it seems, but this might be why Jem concludes that “God does not judge as hardly as man, that’s one comfort for all of us!” (461).

Reading Consolation in Nature, and the Consoling Nature of Reading in Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”

For a novel that is at least in part about grief and consolation (or lack thereof), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man features a tension between the civic and the natural – between sub-creations of man and creation itself. At points, nature has the capacity to soothe, but at others the potential comforts of nature are passed over for written texts. While Adrian and Verney abandon books to find comfort in the natural world and its beauty, the narrator in the novel’s introduction finds relief from pain when she contemplates the written text of Sibyl’s prophecies. Yet, even in the introduction, the narrator’s imagination fixates on facets of nature within texts, and the novel’s end finds Verney with copies of books.

The Last Man begins with the narrator finding comfort primarily in the act of translating and reading Sibyl’s prophesies, but it is unclear whether the source of consolation can be attributed to nature or art. The narrator states, “Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and exciting my imagination to daring flights through the immensity of nature and the mind of man” (6). After transcribing the materials from Sibyl’s leaves, she further reflects, “such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear to me, and that the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or, worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets” (7). For the narrator, sorrows are softened by imagining the narratives and scenes predicted by Sibyl, which include “exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat” (5). These are not solely poetic descriptions of the natural world, but include depictions of humankind. Art seems to be the source of consolation, here, but neither is nature entirely absent. The narrator’s imagination paints “tempests and earthquakes,” and flies through “the immensity of nature” as well as the “mind of man” and his “stormy” passions. It is possible that humanity functions as a sub-category of nature, as its “storms” parallel natural “tempests.” Contemplating humankind through art could be an indirect means of contemplating nature. However, the examples of Verney and Adrian indicate that reading art is insufficient for consolation, and that reading about man’s passions can actually increase sorrow rather than heal it.

Both Verney and Adrian retreat from reading text to instead view nature as a source of consolation for their griefs. During the final travels of Verney and his companions in the novel’s third volume, Adrian at one point abandons the “inanimate page” for those of the natural world, which are “more pregnant with meaning, more absorbing.” The reason nature absorbs, in this case, seems to be in part because it can soothe, with its “tranquil” nook where “the purling brook kissed the green sward” (417). Contrasting much of the characterizations of nature as hostile or savage in other parts of the novel, here it is given tender qualities. Even the scholarly Adrian puts down his text to be consoled by the peaceful scene. If written text is neutral in this instance, it takes on an explicitly negative connotation by Verney further on. He states, “There were few books that we dared read; few, that did not cruelly deface the painting we bestowed on our solitude, by recalling combinations and emotions never more to be experienced by us” (431). For the narrator, reading the storms of man’s passions softens her sorrows, while for Verney such readings are cruel reminders of what has passed and can never be reclaimed. This is puzzling, as the stirring of imagination and passion is precisely what comforts the former. Why should it not do the same for Verney? Does a pathetic engagement with art enable catharsis, or does it resonate with and therefore enhance pain? Are there any ways to predict whether pathetic art will sooth or spark grief? If it works for one character in the novel, whey not the other?

The conclusion of the novel creates further parallels between the narrator and Verney, but fails to indicate whether or how nature or art is the better balm for grief. In the penultimate page of the book, Verney departs St. Peter’s with Homer and Shakespeare, taking some comfort from the fact that he can “in any port … renew [his] stock” (469). Such choices of text seems deliberate on Shelley’s part. She could easily have selected the works of Plato and Aristotle, or any other text of abstract philosophy, but Verney takes with him two writers that seminally depict the “stormy” and “ruin-fraught passions of man.” If Verney had rejected books earlier, why does he take them now? His isolation is not a satisfactory answer, as isolation is what deters the narrator from finding comfort in her readings (6). Furthermore, Verney demonstrates a turn towards nature in his final declaration when he states “I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear … I shall witness all the variety of appearance, that the elements can assume – I shall read fair augury in the rainbow – menace in the cloud – some lesson or record dear to my heart in everything” (470). That Verney expresses something as “dear” to him is interesting. It directly reflects the narrator’s expression when she finds the excitement of her mind “dear.” The kind of text that they read is also parallel, as Verney “reads” omens in nature, while the narrator reads the omens of Sibyl’s prophesies. Excitement over even the foreboding aspects of nature, or those which indicate some kind of “lesson or record,” appears to have a strangely comforting quality for both Verney and the narrator. Paradoxically, when countering grief, reading the cloud’s menace, Achilles’ wrath, or Othello’s fury might be more effective than contemplating nature’s or humanity’s brighter aspects.


Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Impossible Ideals: Addressing the IPW and Aporetic Tensions in the Rhetorical Imperative

It might not be immediately apparent how the “International Parliament of Writers” (IPW) could clarify a theoretical understanding of hospitality as rhetoric. However, Diane Davis, in her book Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations points to the organization to illustrate how hospitality is not only informed by Derrida’s “law,” but also how the concept of the “rhetorical imperative” plays out meaningfully in the real world. She defines this imperative as “the infinite obligation [of the “I”] to receive and respond [to the “other”]” (119). For Davis, the IPW extending hospitality to disadvantaged writers is an example of the “rhetorical imperative” applied to a political context, and therefore it could serve as an effective response to the charge that “there is no legitimate place in the public sphere for appeals to ‘infinite responsibility’” (118).

According to Davis, “everything begins with rhetoric,” including hospitality (115). Rhetoric undergirds every facet of human experience, as the consciousness of the Cartesian “I” does not merely derive from the “infinite welcome” of the other, but “consciousness is this infinite welcome.” (129). That everything begins with rhetoric highlights the centrality of the concept of the rhetorical imperative. The “I” is infinitely obligated to “respond” to the other (as well as the interrupting “third party”), as the “I” depends on the other for its own existence (115). When Davis refers to the relationship between the host and guest in Derrida’s law of hospitality, and the ethical obligations that they might have towards one another, she does so through a rhetorical framework. The host and guest are not only a “self” and “other,” but each is an “I” which “is responsible to and for the other, infinitely” (115). Derrida’s law and Davis’ imperative therefore appear to be somewhat interchangeable in her argument.

The IPW as an example of the rhetorical imperative – wherein cities and writers ideally act as hosts and guests, and wherein both parties are infinitely responsible to and for the other – further clarifies what I take to be Davis’ thesis. She claims, “it is thanks to an experience of this rhetorical imperative … that both moral and political fields can be and remain open. An inessential and thoroughly rhetorical solidarity, which is not in itself limited or limitable, is the condition for any ‘truth process’ as well as any political instantiation of social structure” (119). Davis makes this statement in response to critics who argue that the infinite responsibility of the rhetorical imperative finds no place in the public sphere (118). If Davis can prove that the IPW is an instance of the rhetorical imperative at play, then Derrida’s law of hospitality and the appeal to “infinite responsibility” are justified as politically applicable concepts (118).

Because Davis argues that there is an inherent “aporetic” tension between the law and the laws of hospitality, it is questionable whether the law is meaningfully defended within her own argument (127). Davis acknowledges that, “When the infinite obligation to the Other is not checked by the infinite obligation to the ‘third party,’ … it becomes the alibi for a sacrificial exchange in which all the other others are substitutable: daughters for angels, a concubine for a pilgrim, Isaac for Abraham …” (134). Unchecked, the law of hospitality will become inhospitable, as the host must sacrifice even the life of the third party for the sake of the guest, and thereby violate justice. Consequently, according to Davis, there is “no hospitality in the ‘classic’ or conditional sense … without transgressing the law of unconditional hospitality” (130). Her admission here might not be problematic if she simply wants to indicate that that the contradiction exists. However, Davis’ treatment of Derrida’s critics and her use of the IPW as an illustrative example of the rhetorical imperative suggests that she wants to respond to the criticism on some level. Habermas and Laclau argue that the “infinite responsibility” of Derrida’s law is illegitimate in the public sphere (118). Davis, however, indicates that she wants to answer the question “how [can] we engage a rhetorical practice that embraces and affirms the rhetorical imperative?” (135). Merely acknowledging the contradiction does not seem to satisfy the relevant question she poses.

Davis frames the example of the IPW as one of the rhetorical imperative in practice, but she also heavily emphasizes the contradictions which make the imperative seem impossible to implement. It is just after addressing the “aporetic” tensions between the law and laws of hospitality that Davis transitions to her section on the IPW, saying that the organization will “allow us to contemplate the place of infinite responsibility in concrete agitations for social justice” (135). However, Davis also refers to aporetic tension when she describes Derrida’s formative work in the IPW’s second charter. She writes, “Occupying this space of strategy and decision, Derrida negotiates between the conditional hospitality that the network has successfully established and the unconditional hospitality that must remain its aim and inspiration” (141). Here, conditional hospitality contending with restrictions like national law and limited resources must contend with the ideal of the law of hospitality that is unconditional and infinite. The practical situation that Derrida and his fellow writers face illustrates the divide between the concrete “laws” of hospitality and the “law” that remains solely within the ideal realm. Despite all of this, Davis wants to suggest that the organization and Derrida’s “approach to advocacy were successful” in so far as they represent “countless” others in hiding (142). This conclusion seems inadequate if Davis wants to counter the claim that “infinite responsibility is useless, even a hindrance, when it comes to concrete agitation for social justice” (142). If it is impossible to implement or achieve Derrida’s law, how is it meaningful and why is it worth contemplating? Yet, as a Christian, I suppose I must consider how this objection could also apply to that other seemingly impossible law delivered on Mt. Sinai.